Mississippi’s oldest black-owned business defies death
VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s oldest black-owned business and oldest registered black funeral home turned 123 years old in December.
William H. and Lucy C. Jefferson founded W.H. Jefferson Funeral Home in 1894, and it has remained in family hands since.
“They had no children,” said James Jefferson Jr., who now manages the company.
“William Jefferson died in 1922, and Lucy ran the business until she got up in age, and then she turned it over in 1953 to my father and uncles, Williams H. Jefferson, James H. Jefferson Sr., and George L. Jefferson Sr.
“They ran the business until Uncle George resigned and left the business. They brought in their little brother, Robert J. Jefferson. He is the last surviving brother. He’s 96 and still getting around a lot.”
When William and Lucy Jefferson opened their business in 1894 in the 1100 block of Grove Street, Jefferson said, “It was more of a wooden frame house front type business.”
The business moved to its current location at 800 Monroe St. in 1909. It survived the 1953 tornado with little damage, and the building was remodeled to its current state in 1965. Some of the wooden structure is still in the building that was in the original chapel, and the building had a full basement, he said.
At the time the funeral home opened, and through its early years, the area around it was the center of the African American community in Vicksburg.
“Actually from Clay Street over and go all the way over to North Locust, were business and working class,” Jefferson said. “On Randolph, you had Dr. J.D. Dillard and Dr. Edwards. Dr. Dillard was a general practitioner; Dr. Edwards was a dentist and had his own dental office at his house. We had educators, florists; everybody in that area were good working class families.”
Jefferson grew up in the business, spending his childhood at the funeral home.
“I’ve been here all my life. I probably saw my first body when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was a homicide. The police were down here. Mom couldn’t leave me in the house, so she brought me with her. I didn’t go in the morgue, but I saw them roll him in.
“Growing up, we played on the grounds and played basketball in the back. Death scares a lot of people, and they (his friends) couldn’t handle it. A lot of times they wouldn’t go inside.
“What we like to tell people is dead folks won’t hurt you, but they will make you hurt yourself. You find when your parents and everybody helps you dispel a lot of the rumors, and once you move those out of the way and get to what’s actually happening, what the process is, it takes the fear away.”
He said he went on his first death call with his father when he was 13.
“If you pick up a body a certain way, you can cause air to expel through the lungs. The first time it happened, I was ready to break and run, but my father told me what it was and it was natural, and it’s been fine since. And I explain that to someone helping me; it’s just knowing how to do it.”
He said Jefferson Funeral Home has stayed in business by being fair, honest and compassionate.
“We’ve served the community through many a natural disaster,” Jefferson said. “When the tornado hit, I remember my father and uncles running ambulances back and forth all night.
“Prior to the city of Vicksburg taking over ambulance service, we ran ambulance service from the late 60s to the first of the 70s.
“I remember as a little boy sitting in the bleachers at (Rosa A.) Temple (High School) at the football games, and our ambulance would be parked in the end zone in case one of the football players got hurt. It was get them to the hospital. We weren’t EMT trained or anything like that. All we did was lay them up and then take them up to old Mercy. It was a two-man thing.
“It was a two-man cot. You had to pick it up on each side, push it into the hearse, and there were bars that would lock it into the side to keep it from moving around. We still have the cot down in the basement. They (ambulances and hearses) were all built the same way back then. They had jump seats. We had the little red light on top and we had the siren. We later donated the siren to one of the volunteer fire departments.”
The company has been an active part in many facets of the community from business to public service boards. Jefferson’s father was on the Vicksburg Warren School District Board and on the city’s housing development board.
“We did burial insurance, and we were one of the first funeral homes to have two burial insurance companies.
“And we do services for people in the military. We’ve received bodies from all over overseas. It’s always something special to pay honor to soldiers and to be able to take care of them who have served our country.”
Since its opening, Jefferson Funeral Home has received a lot of competition, with other African American funeral homes starting in the city like Dillon-Chisley, Robbins, F.H. Willials, Lakeview and most recently, C J Williams.
Jefferson said he continues doing business the way his father and uncles have.
“They set the groundwork and the base from which I came from, and I learned watching them.
“Treat them like you would like to be treated and being honest, open and fair with them. We have established that rapport (with people). My father was a humble man; he was never extravagant and helped people, and that’s what I remember most.”
He said operating a funeral home is a 24/7, 365 days a year business, “And some of the saddest calls are the ones you make on the holidays or right before. I’ve actually on Christmas day had to go pick up people.”
“It’s that crushing hurt you see in the family’s eye when you pull up, and my heart goes out to them. Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes, because more than likely, I know them and have known them for a while. Whether it be ice on the ground. It’s hard for me to get a little time off because this job takes your time.”
He said he enjoys his work, and enjoys helping people and being there for them.
“As sad as it is, somebody’s got to be there to do it. I’ve had friends that wanted to get into business,” Jefferson said. “Some of them have even gone to mortuary school, but it takes a special person to be able to adapt to dealing with death on a daily basis.”